~~~

Earlier…

“What… what the hell is this?” Wendy said with alarm.

Two wall-mounted torches provided the only light within the murder room, illuminating dried blood stains streaked and splattered across the walls. In the center of the room was a large rectangular machine lying low to the floor, resembling a bed. Mr. Silver was strapped naked into the machine lying on his back. He was wrapped in barbed wire that dug into his flesh in multiple places above his waist, leaving many bloody wounds. His wrists and feet were attached to small chains that were wrapped around metallic spools involved in some intricate pulley system. He turned his head toward Wendy and tried to shout, but a leather strap, securing some sort of red ball within his mouth, muted the weasel-of-a-man’s cry to some unintelligible sounds.

Sheila was standing just behind the machine. Her black mask was pulled up and resting on top of her head. Wendy noticed an excited expression on the young stripper’s face. Her eyes resembled someone who was about to do something naughty, but still wondered if she’d get away with it. Sheila looked over at Herbie and nodded.

Herbie removed his mask and tossed it to the floor. He looked frantic, out of breath, but his eyes carried a look of determination as he nodded back at the girl, then stared down at Mr. Silver.

Wendy couldn’t believe anything she was seeing. “Again,” she managed, “will someone please tell me what we’re doing here? Tell me this is not what it looks like.”

“What’s it look like, killer?” Sheila said with a devious smile.

“Stop calling me that!”

“Enough,” Herbie said. He walked over to the machine and examined the chains securing Silver’s wrists and feet to the machine.

Mr. Silver stared at him with a mixture of horror and outrage. He was breathing heavily, struggling against his restraints, which only made the barbed wire dig further into his flesh, as he moaned in pain and stopped moving.

Herbie backed up against the closest wall, rubbing his hands. He continued to stare at Silver as if struggling with how to proceed. He looked increasingly uncomfortable. Herbie turned to Wendy and frowned. “After your outburst in the bar, this asshole demanded that I turn you over to him as payment for not reporting me to the authorities. I knew right away what he was up to. He wanted to provoke you and cause a scene… and it worked. I tried and tried to talk him out of it, but he refused. Even after I offered him Sheila, he still refused. This little creature flat-out told me that he wanted only you… and that he was going to take his time enjoying what he had planned for you.”

Wendy stared at Silver who was shaking his head and trying to speak.

“And what was his… plans?” she asked.

“We don’t need to get into all that,” Herbie said. “It doesn’t matter now.”

“It matters to me,” she said. “Tell me what he said to you.”

Sheila sighed impatiently. “Oh, just let me tell her already,” she said to Herbie. She looked to Wendy. “Herbie told me that this monster was going to lock you in a room, probably a lot like this one. He was going to rape and torture you every day for as long as you held out. He even started going into the disgusting details about how he was going to do it. He said that shit right in front of Herbie and everyone in earshot at the bar. The little fuck said that once Herbie sold you to him… it would all be legal, and no one could stop him.”

Wendy turned to Herbie in shock. “He said all that to you?”

The tired bartender nodded with a heavy sigh. “All that… and then some.” He glared at Sheila and continued, “I was trying to spare you that part. But, yes, he was going to do unspeakable things to you if I handed you over to him.” He looked back at Wendy. “There was no way in hell I could live with that. So, I had to… improvise.”

Wendy’s eyes went wide. “Is that what you call all this?”

Herbie wiped sweat off his brow. “I had to call in a favor. The owner of this murder shop owed me… so we worked out the details of a plan that would take care of our… Mr. Silver problem. I told Sheila what I intended to do, and she was on board.”

“What did you two do?”

Herbie smiled weakly. “I sold you to this little freak.”

“You did what?” Wendy took a step back.

He held up his hands. “Relax. It’s all taken care of. I had to tell this asshole something before he went to the Lunatics. So… I told him he could have you in a few days, when I was finished with you. And in the meantime, he could have Sheila to satisfy him while he waited. He seemed okay with that.”

“Yeah,” Sheila said. “He would’ve tortured me, too, the little fucking devil!” She spat in Silver’s face, causing him to flinch.

Wendy pieced the rest of it together. “So, you called in your favor, set up this ‘illegal’ arrangement, then used Sheila to lure him here.”

“Close. I told Silver that I’d set Sheila up for him in the murder shop… and that he could take out his frustration on her… on my dime. That’s what finally calmed him down.”

Sheila shook her head at the pathetic man. She leaned in toward his face and hissed, “I can’t wait until we get started on you! I’m going to enjoy myself.”

“What is she talking about?” Wendy said.

“Obviously, the arrangement wasn’t what Silver thought. And so… here we are.”

Wendy backed up toward the door. “I don’t want anything to do with this!”

“You’re in it!” Sheila said. “Don’t you get it, stupid girl? If we hadn’t put this monster in the chair for you… he’d put you here! And no one would’ve been able to stop him… not legally.”

Wendy turned to Herbie.

“She’s right,” he said. “If I’d refused to deal with him. He would’ve gone to the Lunatics, demanded their intervention, and requested that I turn you over to him as compensation. In their eyes, that would be reasonable.”

“So… he had me either way?”

“Yes,” Sheila said. “You were fucked the moment he walked into the bar and pushed you.”

Wendy stared at Silver. He refused to return her glance. “I can’t… I won’t… do this. It’s not in me.”

Herbie stepped toward her and pulled Wendy aside. He lowered his voice. “You don’t understand. My arrangement with the shop is very clear on this matter. Silver must die before we leave this room. No one can know about our arrangement.”

“Then… then you take care of it!” she said. “I didn’t agree to any of this!”

“Tell her the rest,” Sheila said. “She’s forgetting the obvious.”

Herbie nodded to the stripper impatiently.

“What’s she talking about?” Wendy said.

“That’s the other reason we’re here,” Herbie said. “You want to know what happened to Mark… this is how we find out.”

Wendy stared at Silver again. “No!” she whispered. “No… No… NO! I’m not doing it!”

“Of course, you are!” Sheila said. “You’re going to do whatever you need to do to this sick motherfucker
to find out what he did to the man you love!”

Wendy continued to resist.

Herbie put his hands on her shoulders. “Wendy, he has to die anyway. I don’t like it any more than you do… but he put us in this predicament when he entered my bar. Now… we have an opportunity to kill another bird with the same stone. This only needs to get as nasty as that prick makes it. Hopefully, he’s had ample time in that contraption to consider what it will mean if he doesn’t come clean.”

Wendy closed her eyes. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”

Herbie moved in closer and whispered, “The sooner he tells us about Mark… the sooner this ends… for everyone. Sheila will finish it… and then we’ll know… okay?”

She stared reluctantly into the bartender’s eyes.

He nodded. “Look, I get it. I know you’re not a bad person. Neither are we. This is… this is horrible, but necessary. I wouldn’t have brought you… but you need to know… you need to see it with your own eyes and know that this man is telling the truth. That’s the only way you can let your friend go.”

Wendy closed her eyes tight and nodded. “Alright,” she said. “Let’s just… let’s just get this over with and find out about Mark.”

“Agreed,” Herbie said.

They turned to Sheila.

The stripper started to laugh. “It’s about fucking time.” She stepped over to a handle attached to a ratchet mechanism near Silver’s head.

“We’re not here to enjoy this,” Herbie reminded her. “We just want this asshole to tell Wendy the truth about her friend. Got it?”

“Oh, I got it,” Sheila said. “You better fucking believe I got this!” She leaned down near Silver’s ear. “You hear that, asshole? Everyone’s on board to see you suffer… so please… PLEASE… take your time and make this difficult… I beg you. This is called a Rack. Once I start cranking this little bad boy, this thing will eventually stretch you out like a fucking rubber band until… SNAP!”

Silver shook his head in protest and tried to move again.

“Sheila!” Herbie warned.

“Just prepping the subject,” she said with a wink.

Herbie frowned, then turned to Wendy. “You ready?”

“This is wrong,” she said.

“Yeah… it is. No one’s disputing that. What matters now is how far you’re willing to go to find out what happened to Mark? You can leave right now, and we’ll take care of this dog… but you’ll always wonder what the truth is if you’re not here to see it in this monster’s eyes.”

Wendy nodded. “I want to be the one who talks to him. No one else. If I believe him… then this ends immediately.”

“You got it,” Herbie said. “That’s why we’re here.”

~~~

Later…

Nine felt like he was carrying several hundred pounds in his small backpack as he tried to keep up with the strange man wearing the filthy bathrobe and large sunglasses. Every time he shifted too fast, he felt the dynamite move within his pack, making him slow down immediately. Taven slithered down one alley into another, never making a sound, as he blended in and out of the shadows with ease.

“You okay?” Joe said from Nine’s left. “Keep sweating like that you’ll probably set off the explosives.”

“Huh… what?” Nine looked down at the girl. She was smiling. “Okay… jokes aren’t funny.”

“Depends on your perspective. You look damn funny right now,” she said.

Nine stared ahead. He momentarily lost visual of Taven at the end of another alley. “I’m starting to feel like he’s trying to lose us,” he said. “Dude gives me the creeps.”

“He seems to know where’s he’s going,” Joe said. “I’ve been all over this town and I’ve never taken this route before.”

“Taven said he knew how to get us there unseen. So far, he’s been right. I haven’t seen a single soul, have you?”

“No,” she said. “But I do recognize this part of town. It’s remote, bordering several haunted places just north of here.”

“Wonderful,” Nine said. “Think Smelly Yoda lives out this way?”

“Smelly who?”

“Oh, come on!” Nine said. “Tell me you’ve seen at least one Star Wars movie?”

“No,” she said. “Was never into that sci-fi crap.”

Nine shook his head in disbelief. “If I have to waste one more pop-culture reference on you… I’m going to scream.”

“Like a little girl, I bet.”

“Where the hell is that-”

“Right here,” Taven said, stepping out away from the side of a shadowed structure.

Both Nine and Joe jumped and spun around.

“Shit! Don’t do that!” Nine said.

Taven’s wide grin could be seen through the mass of mangled hair on his face. He stared down at Joe long enough to make her squirm, then pointed down another alley they’d just passed. “This way. We’re almost there,” he said in his ultra-creepy pleasant voice. He stepped ahead of them and started down the alley.

Nine and Joe deliberately waited long enough to create some distance.

Joe leaned in and said, “Does the Yoda reference have something to do with his freakish hearing, because I think he heard you?”

“No,” Nine said. “But I’m adding it on due to the fact that Yoda has some big-ass ears.”

Joe stared at the strange man’s back. “He keeps looking at me like I’m some snack he’s looking forward to.”

Nine laughed. “Well… it is New Cleveland. I’m sure there’s places here where they serve up extra-crispy fried children on a regular basis.”

“Not funny,” she said.

“I’m not the one who’s hungry, Menu Item.”

“Still not funny.”

Taven stopped at the end of the new alley and turned around. He crossed his arms over his chest beneath the robe. “This is as far as I go,” he said.

Nine and Joe stepped up and stared across the back of a grassy field leading up a hill to an old tall rusted structure.

“This wasn’t built when New Cleveland went up. This looks old as shit,” Nine said.

“It’s the old Harbor Theater,” Joe said, dropping her voice to a whisper. “They used to put on animal shows or something in there. No one comes here… ever.”

“This is the part where you tell me it’s haunted, right?” Nine said.

“Worse than that,” she said. “Story goes, when Candyman’s crews were first inspecting the park, they came to the theater and found a whole lot of the dead roaming around in there. Something bad happened to them. A lot of them freaks looked like they’d been mauled on a while.” Joe just stared at the structure, her face going pale.

“And?” Nine pushed. “That’s it?”

“Sorry,” she said. “Well, one story goes… a group of early survivors chose this place to hide out. Some were already infected. They’d barricaded the theater doors so well, that no once considered what would happen if they needed to get back outside. In the beginning, no one understood how the infection worked so…”

“So… the infected turned and attacked everyone else?” Nine said.

“Something like that,” Joe said. “Another version of the story is much stranger than that. Candyman’s men didn’t find a bunch of zombies roaming around in there, trapped because they couldn’t get out. They were all dead—mauled to pieces like a bunch of wild animals had gotten inside and tore everyone up.”

“That’s a nice story,” Nine said with a frown.

“Yeah. It was never explained to anyone’s satisfaction. They never found any animals or anything. Just all the bodies. I’ve heard that if you get too close to the theater at night, you can hear the growls of the animals that somehow got away—infected animals.”

“No one’s seen any animals in a long damn time,” Nine said. “That’s just a bullshit story, like all stories that are based loosely on truth. They get exaggerated over time.”

“Not all stories,” Taven chimed in. “Some stories stand the test of time, serving as warnings to the living. The wiseman will listen to such stories, treat them like signposts alerting to dangers, then choose to go another way.”

“That’s not helping,” Nine said.

Joe stared at Taven. She couldn’t stop fidgeting.

Taven glanced at the girl and smiled. “It’s alright, little girl. I, too, have heard this story. Fortunately, we are not entering the mouth of the theater. We only need to touch this monster’s outer skin, while it sleeps, place our explosives, and then depart… very quietly.” He added a wink.

Joe turned, giving Nine a wide-eyed look, then stepped away from the creepy man.

Nine glared at him. “Wow, I bet you’re a real hit on Halloween. Stop scaring the girl, alright?”

Taven laughed and nodded. “My apologies,” he said. “Shall we proceed?”

Nine nodded.

Taven pointed toward the base of the hill. “Just beyond the grass is an old runoff ditch. There’s a large tube you can use to cross it undetected. Then, just climb up the hill until you reach the back of the theater. Place your explosives, then return the same way. There won’t be any Lunatics patrolling the perimeter… not tonight… so, you should be fine.”

Nine nodded, staring toward the hill. “Looks like we’ll have just enough cord for the detonater. This should run from the theater to the other end of this alley.”

“That was the intent,” Taven said.

Nine turned toward Joe. “You ready?”

She nodded and took a deep breath. “Yeah. Can we hurry this up? Just being this close to this place is making my skin crawl.”

Nine put a hand on her shoulder. “We’ve got this. Cross the ditch, climb the hill… and we’re done. Okay?”

She nodded.

Nine turned to Taven. “So, this is some warehouse now?”

Taven nodded. “Yes. The Lunatics store merchandise here, anything they’ve acquired on patrols outside the town. It may not look like a storage facility, but appearances are deceiving.”

“I’m sure it helps that they’ve got folks sufficiently freaked out about this place. Makes it much easier to protect. How the hell did you find out about it?”

Taven smiled. “I know a great many things about this town… and the towns beyond it.” He would volunteer nothing else. “We should finish this. Your friends will be waiting for our signal.”

Nine nodded and started to turn.

“One more thing,” Taven said, stepping closer to Nine.

Nine was immediately unnerved as the robed man moved within three feet of him. To Nine, he smelled… wrong.

Taven made sure Joe was out of earshot. “Should either of you hear anything near the surface of that place… and I mean anything… take heed what I said about some stories and get away from the theater as fast you can.”

Nine wanted to inquire further but Taven turned away, drifting into the shadows of the alley.

Joe came over. “What’s the matter?”

Nine stared after the strange man, then shook his head. “Nothing. Let’s just get this done. I’m starting to get the creeps about this place, too.”

Nine and Joe moved quickly through field, used the tube to cross the ravine, then scaled the grassy hill until reaching the old structure’s south wall.

Nine knelt behind the rusted aluminum siding running all the way up the wall. In many spots, it looked like the aluminum was partially ripped away from the structure as it shifted and creaked in the wind, making the theater seem alive and aware of their trespass. Nine removed the dynamite bundle from his pack, then wiped sweat off his brow.

Joe paced nervously, her head spinning on a swivel as she watched both corners of the building for movement. She would never admit it, but she was searching for signs of wild animals, including tracks on the ground. No one had seen any animals since The Change, another great mystery, but that didn’t stop Joe from expecting some hideous infected beasts to attack them at any moment.

“Stop pacing,” Nine whispered. He was focused on attaching the detonator wire to the bundle. “You’re making me nervous.”

“I’m going to peek around a corner,” she said. “Just in case that creepy guy was wrong about the Lunatic patrols.”

“Hurry back,” Nine said. “This place is freaking me out.”

“Me, too,” she said. “Just a peek. I’ll be right back.” Joe started for the corner connecting with the western side of the theater. She stayed low, cleaving to the south side wall. She heard a new sound from directly ahead, partially muffled by the wind. It sounded like it was coming from the ground. As she got closer, the sound stopped. Joe located a small breach at the base of the south wall. She crouched down to inspect it. The hole in the wall was just big enough for her to crawl through on her stomach. She could see nothing within the hole, but it appeared to go all the way through, penetrating the dark theater.

Don’t even think about going in there! she cautioned herself. Instead, her curiosity led her to lean in close to the breach, turning her right ear toward the gap to listen.

Nothing.

A hand grabbed her left shoulder.

Joe spun around and gasped. It was Nine.

“Sorry,” he said, crouching beside the girl. “What is that?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “A way inside… maybe. It’s too dark to see anything. Thought I heard some-”

Joe was cut off by the sound of overlapping low moans escaping the hole as the wind settled down.

Both the girl and Nine scurried back from the gap, sharing a terrified glance.

Nine grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled her away from the breach. “Time to go,” he said. “Explosives are set.”

“But… what…what was… you heard that, right?” Joe stammered.

“I don’t even want to think about it… not up here,” Nine said. “Let’s start unravelling the wire and get back down before whatever we woke up comes out of that damn hole.”

Joe started to cry.

“Sorry,” Nine said. “I didn’t mean that. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

They reached the spot along the wall where Nine placed the explosives, then started back down the hill before Nothing had a chance to hunt them.

~~~

Next Episode 52-2

Previous Episode 51-6

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 52-1: Sodom” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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